After Weeks of Silence, Dr. Fauci Is 'Totally in Favor' of U.S. Reopening if Done 'the Proper Way'

After cautioning states all spring about the risks involved in loosening coronavirus restrictions too quickly, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday he supported their reopening efforts so long as they are done responsibly.

"Now is the time, depending on where you are and what your situation is, to begin seriously looking at reopening the economy," the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said during an interview with CNBC. "I'm totally in favor of that, if done in the proper way in the appropriate setting."

Fauci has been advising President Donald Trump's administration in its response to the pandemic since January. In the months since he joined the White House's coronavirus task force, Fauci has become a highly trusted figure, with some recent polls finding that citizens rate his handling of the pandemic significantly better than they do the president's.

While Trump has come under fire for seeming eager to reopen the economy as soon as possible, Fauci has appeared to take a more conservative approach. In mid-April, he warned there could be a "big spike" in coronavirus cases if states relaxed restrictions prematurely.

As recently as last week, Fauci said in his testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that states risked worsening the health and economic impacts of the pandemic if they decided to reopen before national guidelines on case counts, testing capacity, contact tracing ability and more had been met.

Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing of the White House's coronavirus task force on April 17. Fauci said on May 22 that he was "totally in favor" of the U.S. reopening, so long as states' reopening efforts are done responsibly. Alex Wong/Getty

During what was one of his first media appearances in weeks, Fauci on Friday voiced a much more optimistic view of the country's progress. "We are enthusiastic about reopening," he said. "I think we can do it in a pace that would be reasonable and that would get us back as a society from a morale standpoint, as well as the economy.

"I don't want people to think that any of us feel that staying locked down for a prolonged period of time is the way to go," Fauci said, adding that strict measures early on were necessary to slow the country's infection rate. Longer lockdowns could do "irreparable damage" to local economies, he warned. "It's for that reason why the guidelines are being put forth so that the states and the cities can start to re-enter and reopen."

Though Fauci agreed the time had come to consider lifting pandemic restrictions, he said not all regions would be able to do so at the same speed. Most governors have identified the metrics each county must meet in order to transition into their state's phased reopening. Continued social distancing efforts and the use of facial coverings have also been recommended by many local leaders, in addition to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fauci echoed the call for wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, which he said includes avoiding crowds of people.

Later Friday, Trump said houses of worship would soon be included on the CDC's list of essential activities and services. The rights of Americans to practice religion at in-person services have been extensively debated since pandemic restrictions began, with some religious leaders filing lawsuits against state officials over the right to attend services in person.

In California, where Governor Gavin Newsom has kept restrictions on large gatherings intact, a church that held a Mother's Day service in spite of the restrictions later discovered one of its congregants had tested positive for the virus and had exposed at least 180 others at the service. Similar incidents have been reported at places of worship in Arkansas, Georgia and Texas.

While Fauci continued to call for social distancing, Trump in his Friday announcement said he would "override" governors who continue to keep houses of worship closed. The White House did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment before publication.

Even without reintroducing large gatherings, Fauci said, the country's reopening must be done slowly to safeguard as much as possible against future outbreaks. "I have concerns if cases are continuing to go up and you're actually jumping over some of the benchmarks that we put in the recommendations," he said. "If states and cities and counties are going to do that no matter what, I would recommend they take very significant precautions."

Not every state has exercised the caution Fauci advised. Last month, Georgia became the first state to begin lifting its pandemic restrictions, more than a week before national guidelines officially allowed it to do so. Recognizing that some states are anxious to reopen despite not yet meeting all of the national criteria, Fauci said it is important for their leaders to take as many precautions as possible while reviving their economies.

"In general, I think most of the country is doing it in a prudent way," Fauci said. "There are obviously some situations where people might be jumping over [the national guidelines]. I just say, Please proceed with caution if you are going to do that."